Is Competition Good or Bad?


This debate has been on for a long time, and while most of us would clearly side with one view, some (like me) would be unable to take a side and feel that something is wrong here, because there seem to be equally strong merits and demerits of competition.

Merits of competition are that it provides the challenge and motivation to the participants to continue striving towards excellence, thereby enabling them to move towards realizing their true potential. The demerits of competition are that it kills cooperation and creates stress. The individuals see their value and self-worth only in winning and defeating others. The individuals try to earn their respect and prove themselves worthy by trying to prove that others are less worthy of respect than them. This is obviously a very unhealthy attitude. Every individual is unique and invaluable and incomparable and their self-worth should not be based on external things like winning some competition. If it is, then they are bound to lose at some point of time, since there can only be one winner in a competition, and one can’t win all the time. This pressure to keep winning in order to remain worthy of respect creates unhealthy stress and other negative emotions. That raises the question – is Competition good or bad?

After reading “The Inner Game of Tennis: The Ultimate Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W Timothy Gallwey”, this dilemma was finally resolved for me.

It turns out that the problem lies in our wrong understanding of ‘competition’. It is vital that as parents and teachers, we understand the correct meaning of ‘competition’ and teach that to our children and students so that they lead healthy lives and reap the benefits from ‘competition’ without the ill-effects.

In his book, Gallwey explains that each of us has two selves whom he labels as Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the conscious mind – our ego. Self 2 is our subconscious mind – our true self. During matches, when a player makes a mistake and you see him cursing himself “Keep your eyes on the ball, dammit! Focus!”, it’s the Self 1 admonishing the Self 2. The goal of all competition is for the participants to keep Self 1 quiet and let their Self 2 perform at full potential. When this happens, we typically say that the player is in ‘the zone’ and is ‘playing out of this world’, or ‘playing like God’. Gallwey defines ‘winning’ as reaching a desired goal after overcoming some obstacles. Winning is not defined by defeating another person, though it does happen in a competition. Gallwey explains this using the beautiful example of surfing. While surfing the waves, you deliberately wait for the biggest wave (toughest opponent) possible because your victory is defined by the obstacle you overcame to reach the goal (reach the shore by riding a wave). So, in a competition, you should seek a worthy (tough) opponent who can pose a tough obstacle for you to overcome in order to make your win (if it happens) meaningful. So, if you were competing in the correct sense of the word, during a tennis match for instance, you would want that your opponent should get a good first serve in so that you can test your skill and hit a good return. You would not be hoping for a double fault! This in fact will also put you in a better frame of mind and readiness to give a good return when he does get a good first serve in.

With this understanding that the opponent plays the vital and useful role of providing the obstacle against which one can test their skills in order to improve, one will be grateful and thankful to the opponent and want him to perform at their best. At the end of the match, winning or losing wouldn’t matter since both would focus only on putting their best effort to overcome the challenge posed by the other and benefit and grow from this effort. Their self-worth is not measured by the victory or defeat in the match. At the end of the match when the opponents shake hands, they would genuinely feel grateful for the worthy challenge posed by each for the other and the learning they both experienced as a result of their efforts to overcome that challenge. Thus there are only winners and no losers in a ‘true competition’.